Studies of Homosexuality Volume 7 Introduction

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March 14, 1992 [vol. 7: Lesbianism]



Today's lesbian movement owes much to the rise of the women's movement in the nineteenth century. Yet the pioneers of that First Feminism, concerned with such urgent problems as spouse abuse and women's suffrage, paid little attention to the question of women loving women. When popular literature dared hint at the existence of the lesbian she was usually disguised under such rubrics as the "blue stocking" or the "tomboy." The lesbian dyad was sometimes referred to as a "Boston marriage."

Somewhat paradoxically, then, the modern study of lesbianism began as part of the investigation of homosexuality—conceived by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (in a series of pamphlets appearing between 1864 and 1879) as covering both male and female same sex behavior—fostered by the pioneers of the German homosexual rights movement towards the end of the nineteenth century. Before Ulrichs, few male thinkers (with the significant exception of Plato and some of the medieval scholastics) or legislators had drawn parallels between lesbianism and male homosexuality, and linguistic terms did not apply to both genders. In the twentieth century, however, parallelism has (with little or no conscious debate, and perhaps following a general tendency to look for matched pairs, e.g. homosexual-heterosexual) dominated the terms of discussion, presenting an interesting question for the historian of ideas.

Havelock Ellis's pioneering synthesis Das konträre Geschlechtsgefühl (1896; Sexual Inversion, 1897) included lesbian case histories (including some material provided by his wife Edith). A 1906 booklet by Anna von den Eken, Mannweiber Weibmmänner und der Para. 175: Eine Schrift für denkende Frauen (Leip¬zig: Max Spohr), appears to be the first published work by a woman to treat lesbianism as a general phenomenon; in the same year a book by Wilhelm Hammer, a physician, Die Tribadie Berlins (Berlin: Wachfolger) focused on lesbianism in the German capital. In France and England works of fiction, such as several novels by Colette and Radclyffe Hall's Well of Loneliness of 1928, helped to sustain interest in the question of love between women.

After the Nazi destruction of the German movement in 1933, there was a long hiatus until the founding of the lesbian rights organization Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco in 1955. Its periodical, The Ladder, which began in October 1956 and continued until 1972, became the first vehicle for scholarship on lesbianism considered separately from male homosexuality. In the latter decades of the twentieth century, scholarship proceeded along three tracks, discussing lesbianism as the female side of a general same-sex phenomenon, as part of women's studies, and as an entity sui generis.

A number of questions regarding lesbian research remain controversial. Lesbian studies clearly covers overtly sexual relationships between females, but does it also include passionate friendships between women that are not known to have been genitally expressed? Most scholars in the field believe that it does. In terms of academic organization, should lesbianism be investigated as a branch of women's studies, as part of lesbian and gay studies, as part of gender studies, as a separate discipline, or perhaps as part of sexology or a new field of erotic variations? This question reflects ideological divisions which stem from two sources: (1) the dual nature of the oppression of lesbians as both women and homosexuals and (2) the debate over whether lesbianism is an involuntary erotic orientation (comparable to male homosexuality) or a political choice in favor of an autonomous female oriented life, devoid of compromising entanglements with sexist males.

Even some researchers who consider lesbianism a sexual rather than political orientation have suggested that it displays causal, behavioral, and incidence patterns different from those of male homosexuality, and therefore is (apart from the pervasive effects of social homophobia, which has often been directed at both types) probably a scientifically distinct phenomenon. Should lesbian studies be a province reserved for women scholars, which appears to be the dominant opinion today, or can men make significant contributions to the field? Is lesbianism comprehensible only from a feminist perspective, a conclusion one might easily draw from a survey of current writing on the subject, or can there be a valid nonfeminist approach to lesbian studies? Different understandings of feminism have also produced numerous debates over the proper approach to lesbian behavior itself; these have ranged from outright anti eroticism to an endorsement of dominance and submission in lesbian relationships.

Lesbian History

Lesbianism takes its name from Lesbos, the Greek island which served as home for the corophilic (girl loving) poet and headmistress Sappho (ca. 612 ca. 560 B.C.), whose surviving poetry forms the earliest known lesbian literature. Such was the excellence of Sappho's lyrics that she was widely regarded as the tenth muse. Not surprisingly, clumsy efforts were made in ancient and modern times to "heterosexualize" her life. Unfortunately, the historical record of lesbianism is relatively sparse. Men had little interest in it, societies until modern times discouraged women from being writers, and little of the ancient and medieval writings of women has survived. The Spartans maintained a female equivalent of pederasty, and we have Sappho, but otherwise we know next to nothing of lesbianism in the ancient world. While the ancient Greeks circulated legends of Amazon warrior societies, historians have found no evidence for the actual existence of such matriarchies.

Lesbianism was generally omitted from Christian criminal laws, and the ancient Hebrew sexual prohibitions did not include it. Some interpretations of Romans 1:26 27 find a mention of lesbianism there as the sole reference to it in the Bible, while other interpreters construe the passage as a reference to aberrant heterosexual couplings of the "daughters of men" with the "sons of God" (Genesis 6:1). During the high Middle Ages a number of Scholastic philosophers, with their passion for the principle of analogy, began to compare female homosexual behavior with sodomy, a capital crime. This comparison resulted in some legislation and a small number of executions for lesbianism; in most of the capital cases, however, it was the perceived usurpation of the male role on the part of one of the partners, accompanied by visible cross dressing, that triggered the persecution.

Asia with its longstanding written traditions offers some evidence. There are records of lesbian marriages in industrialized areas of nineteenth century Guangzhou province in China, as well as occasional late Chinese literary and artistic references, but nothing before the fourteenth century. Even fewer evidences of lesbianism are discoverable in Japanese history. Indian secular law of the Mauryan dynasty (fourth century B.C.) prescribed only minor fines for lesbianism (less than for male homosexuality), but the Hindu sacred law code of Manu (first to third centuries A.D.) reversed Mauryan priorities, punishing lesbianism much more severely than male acts; to what extent either law was enforced is a mystery. Islam virtual¬ly ignores lesbianism, which is never mentioned in the Koran. Thus we have few clues to lesbian history in the high cultures of Asia, though further research may alleviate this dearth.

There is, perhaps surprisingly, more information on lesbianism and female cross gender behavior among the preliterate tribes studied by anthropologists in the Americas and in Siberia, where such women frequently became high status tribal shamans. Female warriors in Brazil led Portuguese explorers to name the world's mightiest river the "Amazon." In North America Woman Chief, a nineteenth century Crow leader, was the third highest ranked warrior in her tribe, and was married to four women.

Unevenly distributed, cross cultural evidence nonetheless suffices to establish lesbianism as a worldwide phenomenon; scattered references to it among tribes in East and West Africa indicate its presence on that continent. Male anthropologists and scholars generally did not inquire into the state of lesbianism in non European societies, leaving only scattered references in indigenous literature, where such exists, for the current researcher to assemble.

In early modern Europe a few lesbians were able to express themselves with some freedom in the theater and the world of entertainment more generally. Others adopted male attire and enlisted in armies and navies. These "passing women" attracted increasing attention in the course of the nineteenth century, when some lesbians deliberately adopted male attire to signal their preference. "Romantic friendships" between women were common in the English speaking world and not subject to suspicion. Unfortunately, the increasing visibility of lesbians in Europe and North America drew the attention of male physicians, who sought to label love between women as "morbid." Like their male counterparts, lesbians who had means tended to flee the Anglo ¬Saxon world for more tolerant countries, especially France and Italy. During the first half of the twentieth century Paris ranked as the international lesbian cultural capital, boasting such luminaries as Djuna Barnes, Natalie Barney, Sylvia Beach, Romaine Brooks, Adrienne Monnier, Gertrude Stein, and Renée Vivien.

Scholarly resources for the study of lesbianism distinct from male homosexuality include a considerable literature, a variety of periodicals, a few bibliographies, and such specialized facilities as the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York. The Buffalo Herstory Project, which has gathered oral histories of older lesbians in the Buffalo, New York, area, provides a valuable model for reconstructing more recent lesbian history.

While this volume in Garland's series of reprint volumes on homosexuality focuses on lesbian studies, significant articles on lesbianism also appear in the other volumes of the series devoted to specific disciplines.

The Lesbian Individual

For most of the twentieth century, writers considered lesbianism to be the female version of a sexual orientation called "homosexuality." As such it participated in the intellectual history of that concept; thus it appeared as a medical problem. By the end of the seventies, however, the medical model had faded from significance for lesbians as for male homosexuals; see the article by Andrea K. Oberstone and Harriet Sukoneck.

Under the impact of the second feminist wave of the 1970s and 1980s, a new conception of the "political lesbian," one who turned away from heterosexuality by conscious choice in order to liberate herself from male domination, entered the field. Some scholars linked this development to a greater plasticity of female sexuality and a markedly lesser degree of female homophobia, compared to that found in males, enabling such a transition to take place with an ease most males find hard to comprehend.

Without benefit of feminist consciousness, same sex contacts had been found in female rats, mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, porcupines, marten, cattle, antelope, goats, horses, pigs, lions, sheep, monkeys and chimpanzees by 1953, when Alfred C. Kinsey published his survey of women's sexuality. There were indications that the prevalence of homosexual contacts among female animals was less than the prevalence among male animals.

Kinsey and his associates found that by age 45, 28 percent of all the females in his sample had at some point experienced psychological arousal by another female (compared with 50 percent of the male sample), 19 percent had experienced sexual contact with another female, and 13 percent had experienced orgasm with another female (compared with 37 percent of the male sample). Long term homosexual associations were much more common among females than among males. Generally, the higher the educational level, the more likely the experience of homosexual orgasm. Only a half to a third as many females as males were either primarily or exclusively homosexual, with only 1 3 percent of the unmarried females classed as exclusively homosexual (the Kinsey "6"), compared to 3 16% of the unmarried males. Many believe that bisexuality has increased among females since the Kinsey survey and is more common today among women than among men; explanations range from the plasticity and lesser homophobia among women cited above to feminist considerations and the fear of contracting AIDS from men together with the rarity of such transmission among women.

For those whose lesbianism is a matter of sexual orientation, the process of "coming out" or acquiring a sense of homosexual identity is roughly comparable to that of males. There is considerable disagreement, however, about whether lesbian consciousness or integration into a lesbian community is the primary factor. For discussions of lesbian identity, see articles by Phyllis Elliott, Barbara Ponse, and Sherry McCoy and M. Hicks.

The health situation for lesbians is much better than for male homosexuals, as the lesbian community has not suffered the ravages of AIDS, while most other sexually transmitted diseases are a great deal scarcer. However, lesbians are still likely to encounter insensitivy among health care providers, most of whom have little understanding of their specific health needs. Alcoholism remains a major health concern among lesbians, with about a third of the lesbian population troubled by alcohol abuse. Writers advance the centrality of the bar as a lesbian social institution and the pernicious effects of oppression to account for this problem, which is equally widespread among gay men.

Lesbian Relationships

Several types of lesbian relationships occur in the literature, but the relative frequency of them, insofar as one can surmise from limited data, shows marked variation from that of their counterparts in male typologies, and two of the more extreme male types are not documented among women.

Seemingly prevalent in the United States is mutual gynecophilia, a relationship between two adult women, both female identified, based on relative equality of status and usually involving sexual reciprocation; this pattern corresponds to male androphilia. Also common, especially among older lesbians (this type appears to have dominated prior to the 1970s) and working class women, is a gender differentiated model grounded in role distinctions, with a passive "fem(me)" who identifies as female and an active "butch" who takes on many attributes commonly associated with males. The age differentiated type, corophilia (corresponding to male pederasty), was one of the institutions of ancient Sparta and was the lesbianism of Sappho, but seems rare today. According to Kinsey, lesbian adolescent experimentation is much less frequent than among males. Situational lesbianism commonly occurred in nunneries, harems, prisons, and boarding schools (see Martha Vicinus' article, included herein). Modern women's prisons show a type of simulated family relationship in which an older stable woman takes one or more younger ones under her protection, generally without the extreme coercive pressures found in male prisons. Parthenophilia, a lesbian equivalent of male ephebophilia, probably exists but descriptions are rare (except for boarding schools), while a lesbian version of the male dominance enforcement type remains unknown outside of lurid male magazines. Lesbian pedophilia, until recently undocumented, is beginning to appear in the burgeoning child-abuse literature; perhaps future revelations will provide examples of lesbian rape as well.

The validity of the lesbian gender differentiated type with its distinct roles has come under attack as politically incorrect by some lesbian feminists, who view it as a replication of patriarchal patterns. This critique has itself elicited considerable opposition; see Joan Nestle's article, included herein.

Scholars have devoted considerable attention to lesbian couple relationships, examining issues of power, competition, and identity and even spouse battering in this context; see articles by Mayta Caldwell and Letitia Peplau, by Jo Ann Krestan and Claudia Bepko, and by J. Lindenbaum. Compared with gay male couples, lesbian pairs display a notable stability and longevity.

Friendships among women have also drawn attention. Intense, socially approved "romantic friendships" characterized many female female relationships from the eighteenth century to the second decade of the twentieth; often they seemed preferable to loveless heterosexual marriages. "Boston marriages" were long term pairings among the few financially independent New England women. Contemporaries did not suspect these romantic friendships of having a sexual dimension, and once awareness of lesbian sexuality became widespread, the institution was doomed. Nevertheless, American society has remained less suspicious of female cohabitation and affectional intimacy than it has of similar practices among males, thus allowing lesbian couples to "pass" more easily. See Leila Rupp's article, included herein.

Many lesbians have become parents, either in a previous heterosexual marriage or, less commonly, through adoption, fostering, or artificial insemination. These situations have given rise to numerous legal questions involving child custody, guardianship in the event of death of the mother, adoption rights, and the relationship of a child to the mother's lesbian partner. Lesbians have been especially vulnerable to charges of unfitness to raise children on the part of ex husbands seeking child custody, as male judges have tended to side with the father in such cases. See the articles by Gillian Hanscombe and Eileen F. Levy.

The Lesbian Community

The lesbian community encompasses many minorities, complicating still further a question of identity already beset by the sometimes competing claims of femininity and homosexuality. Many African-American and Hispanic lesbians have concluded that they must subordinate their lesbian identity to their racial or ethnic loyalty; others feel unwelcome in white lesbian communities. Working class lesbians often do not relate to what they see as a preoccupation with ideological minutiae by their middle class sisters. Aging lesbians complain of rejection by their younger sisters, and may suffer denial of access to nursing homes and retirement centers. Generally, however, older lesbians benefit from the fact that women are as a rule less agist than men. Lesbian youth must fight strong peer pressures to engage in heterosexual dating, and do so without support from adult lesbians, who are subject to consider¬able legal and social pressures to keep their distance. Runaways and castaways often end up having to support themselves through prostitution, and are often unable to enter youth shelters or foster homes if open about their lesbianism. Middle aged lesbians have comparatively fewer problems; see Martha Kirkpatrick's article. Disabled lesbians must deal with rejection based on their handicap.

Religious lesbians encounter much of the same hostility in the Christian tradition as male homosexuals, but have made their presence felt in the gay churches, such as the Metropolitan Community Church, where many serve as pastors and denominational officers. Lesbians are active participants in gay synagogues. Not surprisingly, some women of all orientations have been attracted to "New Age" and pagan faiths which are nonpartriarchal and not founded on a Judeo-Christian base.

Women's sports have provided an area of activity for many lesbian athletes, who have excelled but have often felt it necessary to conceal their sexuality. Many go on to lead closeted lives as high school gym teachers.

The lesbian role in literature has enjoyed considerable attention. Apart from a few classics, many older novels were "lesbian trash," presenting a psychiatrically conditioned picture of the women as neurotics doomed to a life of lack of fulfilment. Some of these books were clearly intended to appeal to the prurient interests of men, though they were read by lesbians also for want of anything better. After 1969 much more positive images appeared, as in the rambunctious comedy of Rita Mae Brown and the subtle presentation of deep feeling of May Sarton and Jane Rule. Like contemporary lesbian poetry, many novels explore concepts of community and individual development in keeping with the changing ideals and discussions of the lesbian liberation movement. Lesbianism appears prominently in other genres as well, including historical romance, problem literature, science fiction, and mystery. Much of this work comes from lesbian¬ owned publishers, though trade presses have also competed, sensing an important market, reached through a large number of women's bookstores. See the articles by Blanche Wiesen Cook, and by Maureen Brady and Judith McDaniel.

In the art world, lesbian collectives exist to further lesbian photography, cinema, and visual arts. Lesbian music, also known as women's music, appears to be the most popular art form in the lesbian community; musical concerts and festivals have become rallying points drawing a wide spectrum of lesbians together for a celebration of community consciousness.

Lesbian Politics

Politically, the lesbian movement has not only survived the decline of the pioneering Daughters of Bilitis, but attained considerable political power within both the gay/lesbian and the feminist movements, numerous lesbian organizations marking all major centers of American life. This achievement has not been without struggle, as the early leadership of the feminist movement rejected open lesbian participation or the placing of lesbian issues on the feminist agenda, based on perceptions that lesbians imitated males and that the general public would react badly to such association.

Lesbians benefitted from the new militancy of gay males after the 1969 Stonewall uprising, though in the 1970s lesbian energies tended to focus more on feminist than on homosexual issues. Gay males' sexual styles, especially in the leather scene, struck many as exalting patriarchal power relationships (ironically, this claim parallels the argument used against lesbians by some heterosexual feminists). Writers and speakers then recast lesbianism as a political choice to do without men rather than a sexual lifestyle with its burden of "mannish" characteristics. Lesbian separatism gained great strength after 1971, shunning gay men and seeking to establish women only communities; alienated women withdrew in large numbers from joint organizations, where they were almost always outnumbered by gay males, and concentrated on developing an autonomous lesbian culture. Some women, resisting the demands of lesbian separatism, withdrew in turn during the mid-1980s to form the nucleus of a growing bisexual movement, where at this point they apparently outnumber men by a two-to-one margin.

With the AIDS epidemic decimating the ranks of gay males in the 1980s, lesbians, however, stepped up their joint efforts with male groups even though personally unaffected by the disease, leading to a sense of cooperation which had not been seen since the 1950s. Lesbians became visibly involved in politics, beginning with state legislators, and challenged armed forces policies barring them from the services. A new generation of feminists carried less stringent standards for "politically correct" lesbian sexuality and were less inclined to blanket condemnation of "butch fem" roles or the use of dildos. Other lesbians, such as Suzy Bright and Pat Califia, celebrated S/M and other forms of variant sexuality previously deemed "not PC." And the old claim that lesbians reject all pornography fell by the wayside, as an increasing number of periodicals and videos attest.

As lesbians organized to combat homophobic discrimination, the question arose as to whether homophobia is a type of sexism or an independent phenomenon. The former position can be analyzed separately for women and for men: men direct homophobia against lesbians because lesbianism removes them from the patriarchal power structure, female homophobia being a product of male indoctrination; homophobia targets gay males who are thought to be passive because they are seen as betraying patriarchal privilege by assuming feminine roles and qualities. In support of this position advocates cite the lesser (or absent, for most non androphile cultures) stigma attached to men who seem to remain in the controlling "male role" in homosexual relations. By contrast, those who believe homophobia is sui generis cite origins in Zoroastrian and then Jewish prescriptions which made no distinct¬ion in terms of role or power position, the historical indifference towards lesbianism, and the currently dominant (in the West) conceptualization of homosexuality as a matter of partner choice rather than role.

Employment discrimination is a matter of great concern to lesbians, who may face a barrier additional to that of simply being women; see the article by Sandra A. Shachar and L. A. Gilbert, included herein. Related to this is the question of health insurance and other benefits for domestic partners, generally unrecognized by employers who provide such benefits for legal spouses.

The legal status of lesbian conduct in the United States varies by state; in half the states, all homosexual acts are now legal; in the other half, a patchwork of statutes, largely inherited from colonial days and traceable to the sixteenth century English law, often omit lesbian acts while prohibiting homosexual acts between males, or include even heterosexual oral genital acts in a broad prohibition. Law reform has generally proceeded in parallel for male and female homosexuality.

Future Directions

An attempt to forecast future directions for the lesbian community and for lesbian studies proceeds from the conclusion that it is homophobia on the part of the general society which brings male homosexuals and lesbians together. Eventually, the long range forces tending to foster the autonomy of the two groups are likely to prevail over the temporary crises, such as AIDS and the right wing Christian homophobic reaction, which tend to bring them together. Lesbianism offers a viable living alternative to a sexist society to the extent that lesbians can build up an economic and residential community where separatism can flourish. Groups will continue to cooperate in coalitions directed at the elimination of discrimination in various areas, but socially divisions will not only remain but intensify as the force of homophobia ebbs but the differential status of males and females remains an intractable problem. If a consensus develops that male homosexuality and lesbianism have different roots, the forces pulling the two apart will probably considerably increase.

On the other hand, a reluctance by the relatively large number of bisexual women to give up their heterosexual interests may put a brake on the separatist tendency, or lead to a decisive split between the exclusives, who seek to immerse themselves in an all female world, and the more integrationist bisexuals, who are also likely to be less purist in their feminism, and who would then emerge as a distinctive bloc.

Lesbian studies are still struggling for an academic home. At this point women's studies departments seem most hospitable, although subject to considerable criticism for downplaying lesbianism (see Adrienne Rich's article), and as long as there are lesbian teachers in such departments there will likely be courses and research pursued in them. Lesbian scholars in other departments will also contribute scholar¬ship and some course offerings. Whether women's studies can remain a viable discipline decades from now, with women holding posts in all other disciplines, remains to be seen.

Certainly the research agenda for lesbian studies is an imposing one, reflecting a serious lag behind the progress of gay studies in such areas as anthropology, history, oriental studies, psychology, religion, sexology, and sociology. Only in the areas of the arts, law, and literature does the state of lesbian studies appear to be comparable to that of male homosexual studies. This discrepancy is likely to persist for some time, reflecting the greater numbers of gay male scholars who have attained tenure in the leading universities, the sense that writing on lesbianism should be done by women-identified women only, and a continuing perception by some male publishers and funding sources that the study of lesbianism is less important than the study of male homosexuality.


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